The rain was falling not particularly hard and the wind was not blowing as I walked. There was no thunder or lightning or anything usually associated with a storm, particularly a storm that had been dumping rain on the city all day. The rain had ostensibly started Sunday night, cancelling our planned walk that night and the storm continued through Monday and Tuesday, similarly cancelling exercise plans again. I had not missed three days of walking since I began this quest, and I was not about to do it now, so when the rain seemed to stop, I laced up my walking shoes and hit the street.
I made almost two-thirds of the way when the drizzle started back up. I was walking at a brisk pace, figuring I would not have much time before the storm resumed, and trying to get home before I got soaked. As I stepped, I remembered a time when I was trying to beat another walking deadline.
“I’m Delirious!” My partner hollered as we marched along on that warm summer day in 1986. We were in Germany, Bad Kreuznach, if memory serves, doing a 12-mile force march as part of the Expert Field Medical Badge test. We both were wearing battle-dress uniform (BDU) with Kevlar helmets and load-bearing equipment (LBE) and carrying a fully loaded ruck sack and trying to make it back to the testing site before the timer expired. We were not in bad shape, the Army was nothing if not all about keeping soldiers in shape, but I was not particularly speedy in my marching.
I knew many of my compatriots were going to try to beat the record and they took off at a dead run when the march began, each hoping to be the one to get the fastest time. I had a different strategy: just finish in time. Kind of like that joke that goes “what do you call a man who passes his medical boards with the lowest passing score? Doctor.” Well, as long as I crossed the finish line before the timer counted down to zero from three hours, I was golden.
In order to facilitate the march, the testing site employed pace setters to march along the route. They had marched the route before and knew just how fast to go to make it in three hours. As long as I stayed in front of them, I knew I would make the time requirement. Easy peasy.
“I’m Delirious,” I answered. We had been repeating this to each other since the half-way point as a way to rally our strength. It had been just over two hours into our march when the load on our backs began to take its toll. Since we started out at a measured pace, we paced many of the younger medics who had started out running, but then ran out of steam. I understand several had to be carried to the aid station having exhausted themselves trying to run.
The test was designed to be taxing. A 100-question written exam started the week-long process which also included marksmanship testing, a litter obstacle course, land navigation (day and night), nuclear-biological-chemical safety testing (Gas masks and MOPP suits), combat medical scenario lanes and, of course, the 12-mile force march. I was doing rather well in the test so far. I had passed the written test, the NBC test, land navigation and the marksmanship test. All that was left was the lanes and the march (I think anyway, it was more than 25 years ago). They call it the Expert Field Medical Badge for a reason. They don’t just give the award away. It was worth a boatload of points come the promotion boards, so you really had to earn it.
So as we marched, the weight of the rucks dug into our already tired shoulders, sinking into our weary bodies. We had to reach deep down to pull out the reserves to finish this test. We had started the march talking between ourselves, but by this time, we were saving our strength. Even chit chat was exhausting.
“I’m delirious!” he hollered again. I was about to echo his call when I saw them. The pace setters were coming up from behind us. If we let them pass, that meant we were not going to cross the finish line in time.
“Be delirious in front of them,” I countered thumbing over my shoulder.
We redoubled our efforts to stay in front for the last couple of miles. I saw the finish line ahead of us as we rounded a curve. There on a table to one side of the path was a large digital clock counting down the time. It read just a few minutes left, but those minutes seemed like seconds as we stepped up our pace and the finish line never seemed to get any closer.
We almost broke into a jog for the last couple of hundred feet as the seconds ticked off. The pace setters were still behind us, but it didn’t matter. The final reading of zero was already glowing at me as my foot crossed the line. We were less than one second too late. So were the pace setters, but then they were not competing for the badge. Even though we had outrun the pacesetters, we had not outrun the clock.
I never did go back to take the test again, so I finished my Army career never having earned that badge. It is one of the regrets I carry from my military days, but I have many more positive memories and experiences that the Army instilled in me, such as always finish what you start. Charlie Mike: Complete the Mission.
So tonight as I walked home with the drizzle incessantly dripping on me, never really amounting to a rain, I walked myself along the path getting slowly more and more soaked. Of course, it doesn’t matter if it never really rained. I didn’t outrun the storm. I got wet just the same. Some things you just can’t outrun.